‘Hungry’ Bears eager to break through semifinal-itis

Delran, the reigning four-time South Jersey Group 2 champs, lost two-thirds of its lineup to graduation but still have state title expectations .

Delran’s Chris Siemien tries to get a last-minute touch on a ball as Lenape’s Kevin Schurr and goalkeeper Justin Gibson close in. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

After the conclusion of a recent win at home, Delran’s soccer team crowded around its coaching staff and a half-dozen, slightly older kids in street clothes for an impromptu photo. 

The older group, former Bears soccer standouts, came back into town (one arriving from Brazil) for the wedding of another Delran alumni. They made it a point to fit a soccer game into their itinerary. 

Before the game, the current Bears used some slightly more recent history to set the tempo for their aggressive and relentless play. Delran, easily one of South Jersey’s most consistently strong soccer programs, has advanced to the state semifinals in each of the previous four seasons.

They lost all four games, including the last two to eventual Group 2 state champ Holmdel.

“That hurt,” current Bears senior Frankie Taylor said. “That motivates us to get going. We always work (to get back). Every time we do a run, we’ll be like, this goes to Holmdel, this is for the last five minutes of that game. We use that as motivation.”

“It’s getting annoying,” fellow senior Ryan Burrell said “But this year, hopefully we can get past the hump. We’ve just been working hard, trying to use that as fuel to get past it.”

Delran’s Frankie Taylor and Lenape’s Colin O’Malley battle for possession as Lenape’s Ethan Baker closes in for support. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

You don’t have to pay attention too closely to see that fuel burning off during games. Despite losing nearly two-thirds of its starting lineup, Delran plays with the tenacity of a team eager to prove it can still make a deep run in the postseason and get the proverbial state semifinal monkey off its backs, too.

“Extremely hungry,” Mike Otto, in his 20th season as the Bears coach, said of his senior class. “They’re a close-knit group of guys. You can tell they battle for each other every day they’re out here. That was known coming into this year. It’s a great bond with this group and I think it’s going to carry us a long way this year.”

A month ago, many people probably looked at Delran’s roster and saw that All-State defender Cole Gifford had graduated, as had postseason Group 2 selections Jayson Vandermark, Sean McLaughlin, Mark Olivo and Chris Hunt. And those same people probably guessed Delran might struggle to find its footing, especially early, given that roster turnover.

Guess again. After earning a 3-1 win over a talented Lenape team last week, Delran (5-0-1 entering the penultimate weekend of September) remained unbeaten. [UPDATE: The Bears first loss since the state semifinals came two days later, when they were beaten by another South Jersey undefeated team, Clearview).

“I feel like we were slept on a lot, that people were doubting us, no doubt,” Burrell said. “But the younger guys are stepping up, working hard in practice and it’s paying off.”

Delran’s Daniel Strohlein gets a head on the ball as he and Lenape’s Shom Dhar got skyward at the end of a free kick. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

“We’re still here,” added Taylor. “Teams are doubting us, they look at us and see we lost basically our whole starting lineup. But I feel like we’re all together, a lot of the seniors have been playing together for a while, all club season, and we’re just here to work. We’re here to work every day to get better and we’re here to make each other better.”

The names on the roster may change each season. But the expectations remain. Delran has won four consecutive South Jersey sectional titles entering 2019 and the current seniors want to make a run at the program’s first state title since 2013 before they’re the ones coming back for alumni photos.

“Nothing has changed since I’ve been here, honestly,” Otto said. “We still play the same way, I still coach the same way. And every year the departing seniors seem to say the same thing: ‘What are you going to do next year, change the schedule?’ Everybody leaves and thinks the next team isn’t going to be as good because they’re leaving. And it’s never the case. We have a system where we can plug guys in. Obviously there are going to be better players throughout the years in different sports, but the bottom line is it’s the same system.”

“Our one goal is the state championship,” Taylor said, “and that’s what we’re going for.”

Delran’s starting lineup gathers together before the beginning of the second half. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)